Toothless Tiger, National Treasure

by singaporearmchaircritic

I’ve stopped reading The Straits Times ages ago, for reasons obvious to readers like you. But sometimes a headline, so absurd that it’s hilarious, still catches my eye. The latest one is “Tripartite relations as national treasure” (The Straits Times, 10 Dec 2012), based on Lee Hsien Loong’s speech in response to the SMRT strike. The “trust” between the government, employers and the union, according to PM Lee, is like “a Ming vase”. Once broken, he said, “you can’t glue it together again, and all Singaporeans and our children will suffer for it”.

I nearly spit up my coffee.

You’ve got to hand it to the government’s spin doctor for coming up with such a delightful gem to brighten up your day. I am sure it takes years of practice to perfect this skill.

But it seems that The Straits Times was already a consummate government mouthpiece way back in the 1970s. Here’s another gem I found when researching on the evolution of our trade unions. Titled “ ‘Marital bliss’ between unions and management: only one strike last year”, the report reads:

The Singapore industrial scene is heading for its most peaceful climate since the strike-happy years of the Fifties and Sixties, with managements and unions enjoying a sort of “marital bliss” . . . There was only one strike last year, the lowest figure in eight years (The Straits Times, 9 Jan 1978).

The Metal Box Saga 

This one and only strike in 1977 lasted for more than two months and was called by metal workers of Metal Box in Woodlands. It is the last “illegal” strike Singapore saw before the recent SMRT strike and a watershed in the history of Singapore’s industrial relations.

From February to June 1977, Metal Box workers took a series of “illegal” industrial actions led by their in-house union, Singapore Metal Box Workers Union (SMBWU), which was not affiliated to the NTUC. Their actions prompted a tightening of labour rights in the form of the Trade Unions (Amendment) Bill.

The fall of the SMBWU in its battle with the PAP government and the NTUC marked the final, inexorable decline of independent unions, ushering in an era of “industrial peace” in the history of Singapore briefly interrupted by the 1986 “legal” strike.

Plucking the Tiger’s Teeth

Singapore underwent a period of rapid economic growth from 1965 to 1979. Except in 1974 and 1975 when growth slowed to 4% due to the oil shock and recession, average growth was 10% over this period. By 1977, direct exports made up 65% of our total manufacturing output. Leading export-oriented industries were electronics, shipbuilding, oil-rig construction and petroleum refining, all involving metal works (source).

In the then economic climate, metal workers unions like the SMBWU must have commanded high bargaining power vis-à-vis the employers. And SMBWU had had considerable success in fighting for workers’ welfare. In 1972, the Industrial Arbitration Court, in arbitrating a dispute between SMBWU and Metal Box, awarded pay increases for 500 workers (“Court award pay rises for Metal Box workers”, The Straits Times, 30 Apr 1972).

But SMBWU’s success was not replicated in 1977. Perhaps the government lost its patience and decided it was time to rein in the union. This was evident in the high-handed manner it dealt with the strike, which arose from disputes between the union and a Metal Box personnel officer.

Throughout the protracted strike, the press, the Labour Ministry, the Parliament, NTUC and its affiliated unions were working seamlessly together to ensure that the strike would end in ignominy.

Within days of the strike, the management of Metal Box swiftly sacked 360 out of the 400 striking workers. Former President Devan Nair, then secretary-general of NTUC, had strong words for the SMBWU and even Metal Box:

I cannot resist the observation that the management of Metal Box richly deserved the kind of union they had… For the management have always been proud of the fact that their union was not connected with the rest of the labour movement headed by the NTUC. Indeed, they gloated over this… I am sure that the management of Metal Box today are sadder, but probably wiser than they were (“Union must face the music now… for ignoring advice not to strike”, The Straits Times, 14 Apr 1977).

The SMBWU was affiliated to the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF) in Geneva, which at one point, asked an Australian unionist visiting Singapore to give support to the SMBWU (today the IMF affiliates in Singapore are all linked to NTUC). It was a futile attempt and the Aussie was rapped by Devan Nair as blatantly intervening in the strike.

The government then adopted the strategy of divide-and-conquer to weaken SMBWU. It asked more than 100 non-striking workers to resign from the SMBWU to join the government-linked Pioneer Industries Employee’s Union (PIEU) instead.

To discredit SMBWU in the eyes of the sympathetic public, which donated in cash and kind to support the strikers, the press embarked on a smearing campaign. SMBWU was demonized as untruthful, callous, intractable and lacking the grounds to call a strike.

The Death of the Union

The final nail in the coffin, however, was the freezing of union funds around mid April, after an amendment to the Trade Unions Bill was conveniently passed in the Parliament on 23 March 1977.

The amended Bill, moved by then Labour Minister Ong Pang Boon, empowered the Minister to freeze the bank account of a trade union under investigation for “improper use or misapplication of union funds”, and to forbid a registered trade union from investing its funds in securities without ministerial approval (“Move to ensure industrial peace”, The Straits Times, 25 Mar 1977).

Supporting the Bill, Phey Yew Kok (MP, Boon Teck; secretary-general of PIEU; president of NTUC) said the provision on illegal strikes was not comprehensive enough as it did not provide for punishing non-union members who took part in an illegal strike.

Phey also urged the minister not to be “unduly restrictive” in approving a union’s investment of its funds (in a twist of events, Phey himself was charged two years later under the Trade Unions Act for investing $18,000 of trade-union money in a private supermarket without the approval of the minister. Talk about karma).

With its lifeline cut, the Metal Box strike fizzled out in June 1977. SMBWU was also dissolved. The SMBWU chairman claimed the dissolution was “unanimous” and “voluntary” after “due legal consultation with regard to the legality of its present existence as a union”.

Timeline of the Metal Box Strike

9 Mar: “Firm sacks 22 after ‘walkout’ at factory”

20 Mar: “Settle our grievances or we’ll strike, warns union”

25 Mar: “Move to ensure industrial peace” – the passing of the Trade Unions (Amendment) Bill

5 Apr: “400 on strike after their demand is turned down”

8 Apr: “360 striking Metal Box workers get the sack”

10 Apr: “Metal Box union asks for intervention by Labour Ministry”

11 Apr: “Metal Box strike: Don’t meddle, PIEU told”

12 Apr: “Aussie unionist rapped for meddling in MB strike”

13 Apr: “Blow for Metal Box union strikers”

14 Apr: “Union must face the music now…for ignoring advice not to strike”

17 Apr: “Metal Box union spending $800 a day on strike”

19 Apr: “Metal Box: 50 more sacked strikers return to work”

21 Apr: “PIEU accorded right to represent 150 MB workers”

24 Apr: “Untrue that union leaders met minister”

4 May: “Metal Box strike likely to fizzle out soon” – union funds were frozen

6 May: “Reinstate plea not rejected, claims union”

10 May: “Last chance for Metal Box strikers”

12 May: “80 sacked M. Box strikers apply for jobs”

13 May: “Metal Box union’s latest appeal rejected”

17 May: “Strike costs union $400 a day”

27 May: “Union circles are skeptical about legality of M. Box strike”

3 Jun: “Metal Box strike to end next week” – SMBWU to be dissolved

(Read the above reports by The Straits Times).